Once upon a time, Antwerp, Belgium was one of the most prolific beer-producing cities in all of Europe. Much of the region’s success was owed to an accessible style of ale known as seefbier. Made with buckwheat and characterized by its pleasant notes of coriander and clove, the local specialty was crafted by upwards of 100 breweries during its 19th-century heyday.
That all changed during the World Wars. German occupation crushed the industry and seefbier was almost lost forever. Almost.
In 2012, an intrepid Belgian brewer named Johan van Dyck set out to resurrect the style. He launched Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie, hoping to position seefbier as a flagship offering. It proved to be an outsized task.
In addition to logistical hurdles in the present day, it involved a deep dive into history. "I stumbled upon the story of seef in a book about Antwerp’s brewing history," van Dyck recalls. "As a native, I was intrigued by the beer – this is what my ancestors must have enjoyed. I could not accept that the recipe would be lost forever."
Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie — Photo courtesy of Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie
He embarked on what he calls an Indiana Jones-like quest for his holy grail. "I searched local archives, tracked down families that used to own a brewery in Antwerp, even met with old brewers [some of them in their 90s]." For a while, it felt like a futile pursuit; small breweries from the time period failed to keep records or notes on recipes. Scientific record was scant.
And then, a breakthrough. "I finally found a family who did have all their brewing recipes and records still intact. I finally had the original recipe. The treasure of other information I did track down – pictures, stories, anecdotes, letters, etc. – was also so rich that we bundled this into a new 300-page illustrated book."
Seefbier truck — Photo courtesy of Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie
Armed with the actual formula, van Dyck was now faced with the challenge of faithfully replicating it. "Knowing how to brew is one thing, but accurately reviving an historical ale is something else," he points out.
"I had two major challenges. [The first was] yeast – I did know what characteristics were needed for the correct fermentation and aromas, but the exact yeast was obviously not included in the recipe. [The second was] the process: the recipe I found was a practical description from the late 1800s. As a brewer I needed the actual values of temperature, the speed at which the brewhouse heats the mash, etc., because all of this impacts flavors and aromas."
He could have made some calculated guesses to fill in the gaps, but in the spirit of honoring the past, he sought out professorial guidance. He didn’t have to travel far. The University of Leuven – about 40 miles south of Antwerp – is home to a faculty of brewing biochemists (it’s a real thing) and one of the leading beer consultancies on the planet.
"As I did have pictures and plans of the old brewhouse and a detailed description of their process, it was fairly easy for them to translate this into the actual [modernized brewing] values, since they knew this type of old brewhouse."
As fate would have it, the University also kept in their vaults the historical Antwerp yeast used in local beer-making of the early 20th century. "With these issues resolved, we brewed seef for the first time in almost a century," van Dyck fondly remembers. "I instantly fell in love."
He wasn’t the only one. The beer has already racked up six gold medals in international competition, including at the World Beer Cup and the Global Craft Beer Awards. Part of its allure is the full-yet-rounded flavors it derives from a combination of malted and unmalted grains.
Pint of Seefbier — Photo courtesy of Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie
In addition to its buckwheat calling card, Seefbier blends in oat and wheat alongside the barley more traditional to everyday beer making. "Buckwheat is officially not even a 'grain,’'but a so-called pseudo-grain," explains van Dyck. "It brings a spice-like flavor and aroma to the beer that – if used correct – blends and marries perfectly with the yeast resulting in rich and surprising aromas."
But any other brewers that want to experiment with the resurrected style will have to come up with a different title for the label. Van Dyck now holds a trademark on the name.
So, if you’re sipping on official seefbier in the near future, you know it originated in its original home of Antwerp. There, at a newly constructed brewery in the industrial neighborhood of Eilandje, Van Dyck is hard at work, reconnecting the world to his city’s proud past, one batch of seefbier at a time.